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Africa Straight Ahead by Various Artists

This is an extraordinary recording that exemplifies the world stage that jazz occupies as well as the shrinking and inter-connectedness of the world. Recorded live at SABC studios in Johannesburg, it features a core of superb musicians in a variety of settings. Marcus Wyatt’s opening "Owed To Bishop" is straight out of the Art Blakey/Blue Note camp. The trumpeter is joined here by tenor saxophonist Sydney Mnisi, pianist Andile Yenana, acoustic bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and drummer Lulu Gontsana. Paul Hanmer’s "Naivasha (The Moon In A Bowl)" is an equally dynamic work, with Wyatt joining the pianist, tenorist McCoy Mrubata, bassist Denis Lalouette and drummer Kevin Gibson. These opening numbers are the strongest of the dozen presented here.

"Celebrate Mzansi" from tenor saxophonist Moses Khumalo has a more pronounced township jive style to it, though that’s hardly a knock. The instrumentation remains true to straight ahead jazz, with Khumalo’s clever tenor giving way to an extended, inventive and complex piano solo by the brilliant Sylvester Manzinyane over Prince Kupi’s guitar and the bass and drums of Jimmy Mngwandi and Sello "Skholo" Montwedi. The piece is infectious and captivating.

Flutist Zim Nggawana’s lovely "Beautiful Love (It’s All About Love)" is a reflective piece, while the Sheer All-Stars offer "Langerly," a piece with almost a Brazilian mood that spotlights Hanmer’s fluid piano, Mrubata’s inventive tenor work and Errol Dyer’s Benson-inspired guitar. Darius Brubeck and Afro-Cool Concept perform Brubeck’s "Tugela Rail," a tune that reminds at times of father Dave, with a decided Africa flavor. Voice, a sextet of Yenana, Mnisi, Wyatt, Tsoaeli and Gontsana, the same group that recorded under Wyatt’s name on the opening piece, offers a melodious Donald Byrd-styled "Sweet Anathi."

"Lovers on Empty Corners," by the Sheer Allstars -- Wessel van Rensburg (piano), McCoy Mrubata (tenor), Louis Mhlanga (guitar), Sipho Gumede (bass), Frank Paco (drums) - is a quietly impressive piece, while Mrubata’s "Amasabekwelanggeni" notches the intensity level up a notch. Mrubata’s fiery tenor and Feya Faku’s trumpet work in a swirling intensity over the busy rhythm (Yenana on piano, Tsoaeli’s bass, Morabo Morojele on drums with Romeu Avelino on congas and bongos) in this excitingly layered work.

Steel drum master Andy Narrell performs his "Dee Mwa Wee," a number that drops the level back to serenity. With his band of Mario Canonge (piano), Michel Alibo (bass), and Mokhtar (drums), he is able to paint a peace portrait that soothes. Pianist Bheki Mseleku’s "Imbali," on which Faku (this time on flugelhorn) and Tsoaeli make return appearances, along with Ezra Ngcukana (tenor), Enoch Mthalana (guitar), Philip Meintjes ((drums) and Tiale Makhene (percussion), is light fare compared to all that has preceded it.

The closing number, "Shawn’s Uhadi Samba" from pianist Hotep Idris Galeta is a more substantive number that reminds oddly enough of Vince Guaraldi . The gait is lively and the piano beautifully played. Zim Nggawana (alto), Marcus Wyatt, Victor Masondo (acoustic bass), and Kevin Gibson (drums)

As Heads Up did with smooth jazz on the Smooth Africa and

Smooth Africa II collections, this wonderful collection sets its sites on a stylistic neighborhood. Though there are steps beyond the boundaries, it is more successful than not. It is unquestionably a grabber in any language.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
  • CD Title: Africa Straight Ahead
  • Genre: World Music
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Heads Up
  • Rating: Three Stars
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